Lost in Translation is becoming my personal litmus test for indie comedies.
It’s not a movie you can like right away, and a first viewing may not actually entertain you at all. But if you think about Lost in Translation after you watch it, then it’s charms start peeking through.
Little Miss Sunshine is rather like Lost in Translation that way.
The trailier I saw to get me to watch the movie focused exclusively on the dinner scene at the start of the film. The dry delivery and comic timing made me think the jokes would be thrown out before anyone could notice it was happening.
That’s not really the case.
There’s a lot of drama woven into the absurd situations of the plot, and the humor of the movie isn’t the kind that necessarily makes you laugh. If anything, it’s the kind of absurdity that makes you think, "What the hell?"
On some level, Little Miss Sunshine and Lost In Translation are the same story. The characters of both films start out unhappy. They then get into funny situations and form bonds. By the end of the story, they’ve all gone through transformations and understand each other and themselves better.
Little Miss Sunshine isn’t ambiguous about its denounment the way Lost in Translation was, and at times, the character development is splashed with obvious signposts.
Greg Kinnear’s detestable Richard is clearly bound to get his comeuppance. Paul Dano’s sulky Dwayne gets his own wake-up call, and Alan Arkin’s cranky grandpa comes through for the family in unexpected ways.
The foul language and the numerous ways the family pushes its each other’s buttons produce most of the flinchingly comedic moments of the film. But it’s not nearly as enjoyable as watching these characters develop, then come through for each other in the end.
A slight derail for the obligatory Steve Carrell mention — the sexuality of his character, Frank, is treated as a matter of course, and Carrell doesn’t go overboard with the fey. In 2006, a sympathetic portrayal of a gay character shouldn’t be news, but it is.
The funny in Little Miss Sunshine isn’t necessarily so, but the drama and the character development are incredibly satisfying.
Some of the moments are heartbreaking — when Olive (Abagail Breslin) comforts Dwayne without a single word — and some triumphant — the way the family defends Olive’s "talent" routine in the end.
Don’t go to Little Miss Sunshine expecting to laugh at everything, but do go to see a story where seemingly indulgent characters face their limitations and draw strength from them.